|Learn your students’ names. No, really.
Peter Newbury - CTL Director
“Peter Newbury (CC-BY)”
I have a thing about learning my students’ names. And it’s not a good thing.
I think I have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning people’s names: I believe I can’t do it. So whenever someone introduces themself, a piece of my brain shuts off for a seconds and the name go in one ear and out the other. That’s really annoying when I can’t call them by name just 5 seconds later! These days, I deliberately “activate” my brain when I’m about to meet someone: Okay, here comes somebody new. Listen for their name. Listen…listen…listen…got it! “Nice to meet you, [insert name here]”
Of course, I ignore all this advice when it comes to students in my classes. I used to teach introductory astronomy with 200-300 students. I mean, c’mon, what am I supposed to do, learn all their names? Bah, forget about it.
A Critical Moment
A few years ago, I was observing a class taught by a graduate student during the Summer term. David was teaching an anthropology class about multiculturalism to about 50 students. His goal was to regularly spark discussion in class, getting students to share their own diverse cultural experiences. At first, David easily called on about half a dozen students by name, most of whom sat near the front of the room. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself, “he knows the names of the enthusiastic students, potentially excluding the others from the ‘teacher’s pet’ club.” Someone else put up a hand and then David did something that still sticks in my memory: he looked right at the student, said, “Yes…uhhh…” and looked down at his class list with student photos and names, found the right person, “…John*, what would like to add?” [*it wasn’t John, I don’t think. I wasn’t listening. See above.] David made it clear he wanted to learn their names and they saw the effort he was putting into it. Later in the same class, he called on someone at the back of the room, by name, who he remembered had written something about the event they were discussing.
Even though the room was narrow and dark, with the students on one end and David on the other, it felt like a community. They were all learning together. People engaged all over the room, not just the front rows. Wow. I believe that David knowing his students’ names was a critical factor in that success.
From that moment on, I vowed to learn my students’ names. I make an index card for each student using their preferred first name and their photo. Before the Term begins, I study the names, flipping through the cards, inserting the ones I miss back into the stack. It wasn’t that hard for me to learn to the names and faces of my 75 students.
The more I teach, the more I believe my goal is to welcome and support each student and to create opportunities for every one of them to contribute their own strengths and experiences to our learning community. Learning their names doesn’t guarantee I can do that but not knowing their names, in my experience, makes it almost impossible.
If you only have time to invest a few hours preparing for an upcoming course, spend that time creating index cards from your class list and then learning your students’ names. Here at UBC, you can download your class lists (which can include student photos and names) from FSC into an Excel file. When you open the Excel file, you can copy the photos into another file format like PPT or Word. The return on that investment – on the community in you can create in your classroom, on how you feel about your students, and on your teaching evaluations – will astonish you.